Maybe you're worth a million bucks or more and so you're not concerned with stock trading commissions that amount to less than a ratty old Hamilton or even a crisp new Franklin every month. If so, congratulations! You've reached a goal that all Fools strive to reach -- you are financially independent. (It's time to throw a party and invite Fool writers.)
Drip Port is not financially independent. The portfolio launched with just $500 in 1997 and it adds a mere $100 to its modest heft every month. Yes, just $100. That's less than a nice meal out for two. It's less than a month's worth of Starbucks. It's even less than Brian Lund (TMF Tardior) spends each month on Life Savers. (Tardior has boxes of the little round things stashed in his desk at Fool HQ. Nobody is sure why.)
Saving and investing in small amounts, the Drip Port aims to represent the average small investor who is literally everywhere in the world. He's the hardworking factory man in Detroit, the farmer in Iowa, the some-time actor in Los Angeles, the fish monger in New York City and the, uh, writers here at Fool HQ, too. The Drip Port also aims to teach a trick or two to deep-pocketed attorneys, business leaders, hotshot accountants and, heck, everyone else, because nobody should spend frivolously.
From the start, Drip Port set out to show that an investor could begin with very little money and build a nest egg by investing a very small amount o' cash in great companies each month, reinvesting dividends, and avoiding every single cost possible. Because if you're only investing $100 a month, even an $8 trading commission at a discount broker is larger than a Jurassic Park dinosaur. That commission can eat your returns faster than you can say Velociraptor, whether you're a new investor or old.
The real cost of commissions and fees
It isn't just your immediate returns that suffer when you pay commissions or fees. The returns that you could have achieved over your entire investing life suffer, too. Imagine that you pay just $8 in commissions every month to buy more of your favorite stock. That adds up to $96 annually. If you were able to invest that money instead and earn 10% annualized on it, in 10 years, that $96 is worth $250. So if you spend just $96 every year on costs, it soon amounts to thousands of dollars in lost opportunity.
Drip Port keeps its costs to a bare minimum by using commission-free dividend reinvestment plans (Drips, we call 'em). We typically pay a startup cost of $15 to $30 to join a company's Drip, and from that point forward our cost to buy more shares is $0. We've paid $0 to buy additional shares of companies like Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) dozens of times the past four years, and we've paid $0 to have our dividends reinvested in more stock. (If you want to learn more about free Drips, visit the Fool's School.)
When we started our high-growth company study last autumn, we admitted that we might end up buying a company without a Drip by using a new pseudo-Drip service that allows you to buy fractional shares of stock for a commission of about $3 per trade. We rationalized that if a fast-growing company outperformed our other companies handsomely, we'd be financially rewarded and our commissions would be money well spent. However, ideally, we still wanted to find a high-growth company with a free Drip.
Well, we finally gravitated to Paychex (Nasdaq: PAYX), and it appeared that our prayers had been answered. Here was a company growing earnings more than 30% annually as it had for a decade, with monstrous profit margins, a rich balance sheet and no debt, and it had a free Drip, too! Just last week we said that Paychex was our most likely new buy. But that was last week. This week, everything changed.
Paychex "body-checks" us
Paychex announced earnings on June 25. Results were good. Earnings grew 31% year-over-year. So, the business is not the problem. The problem is that the company switched Drip plans to one that includes all sorts of fees. Behold and weep:
Dividend Reinvestment: 2% fee to a maximum of $2.50 per investment
Optional Cash Purchase: $2.50 per investment
Broker Commissions: An additional $0.10 per share on purchases and sales
Safekeeping of certificates: $7.50 per transaction
Sale of stock: $15.00 per sale
Termination of plan: $15.00
The company's new "Drip plan" -- if we want to call it that -- even has a fee for reinvesting dividends, something that even most stock brokers will provide free of charge. For small investors, this new Drip plan, like that of Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB), stands to take too much opportunity away from total returns by way of fees. Our interest in Paychex has hit a wall.
We discussed this development on the Drip Companies board. There are ways to still Drip the company and keep costs low, including only buying shares a few times per year. The kick in the teeth, though, is the dividend reinvestment charge. You might as well use a service like ShareBuilder that doesn't charge for dividend reinvestment and that charges a flat $3 per purchase.
What we need to do now in Drip Port is decide our next step. We have five other companies remaining as high-growth study finalists, but none offer Drips. We'd need to use something like ShareBuilder for them, too.
Our other option, since we are so adamant on avoiding fees, is to continue the high-growth study anew and this time only consider high-growth companies with free Drips, admitting that our original study was fraught with peril and too much cost for us to bear in the end. Some fast-growing, though already large, Drip companies include AFLAC (NYSE: AFL) and Tyco (NYSE: TYC).
Or, there may be another very agreeable solution -- one that would end up saving us even more money than any free Drip ever could, a solution that every investor should consider anyway. Next week, we'll discuss this great possibility, a money-saving solution that came from the most unlikely of sources: The U.S. government.